Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool”– Movie Review

film stars

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool”, starring Annette Bening. 


When Gloria Grahame looks up an old flame, is it to rekindle their romance or to save her life?


In 1979, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) was a young Englishman who aspired to an acting career.  Living in a boarding house, he soon discovered that one of the other residents was Gloria Grahame (Bening), a once-famous American actress who is now long passed her prime.  With her career hitting the skids, she is now finding movie roles few and far between; as a result, Grahame is trying to kick-start her career by appearing in stage plays abroad.  When she meets Peter, her attention turns to snaring this much-younger man and they begin a very passionate affair.

When her time in England ends, Peter visits Grahame in America; the romance continues and he decides to put his acting career on hold just to be with her.  Although things pick up where they left off, Peter eventually begins to question his decision as Grahame slowly reveals her true self, albeit not necessarily by her own doing.  Grahame’s family reveals to him that she has a background of pursuing younger men.  Also, Peter sees her behavior as erratic when she instigates arguments with him and eventually forces him to return to England. 

A couple of years later, Grahame is back in England herself and Peter becomes aware of her return.  Going to visit her, she tells him that she’s sick and wants to live with Peter’s family so they can take care of her.  But after she moves in with his parents, Peter uncovers the truth:  Grahame was so unwell that she was hospitalized and left against medical advice.  It turns out that despite her attempts to trivialize her malady, she was quite ill – the doctor informs Peter that Grahame is dying from cancer.  Can Peter help to get Grahame the treatment she so desperately needs or is it now too late?


Watching “Film Stars … “, it’s easy to feel a little disconcerted.  For one thing, despite the fact that Annette Bening is portraying the late actress, the filmmakers use the actual likeness of Grahame at various points throughout the movie.  When still photographs of Gloria Grahame are shown on screen, they depict Grahame herself – not airbrushed pictures of Bening (or a younger look-alike) made up to look like her.  Also, there are video clips shown; one of Grahame in an old movie (“Naked Alibi”) and the other a televised clip of her accepting an Academy Award (for “The Bad And The Beautiful” in 1953).  In both cases, once again, it is Grahame and not a simulated version with Bening as Grahame’s younger version. 

Why was this done?  It’s not an unreasonable question.  Perhaps the answer comes down to money.  It might be that the film’s budget could more easily accommodate paying for the rights to the clips than to re-enact them with Bening (who likely would’ve had to be shot carefully so as to appear younger).  But the problem with this choice is that it can easily throw the viewer out of the “reality” of the story it’s trying to tell; you have to wind up mentally re-adjusting your view and realizing what transpired (“What just happened here and why was it done that way?”). 

While “Film Stars … “ isn’t awful, it’s little technical details like that which tend to distract the viewer and detract from the movie.  Another example would be its soundtrack.  Elvis Costello fans might appreciate the use of his songs, but putting that aside for the moment, the songs by various artists are not necessarily judiciously used.  Once you start becoming aware of the music and when it’s being utilized in a scene, then you suddenly realize that you’re not involved in the story.  That’s too bad.  Because the story “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” is trying to tell is rather unique. 

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, December 07, 2017

“I, Tonya”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “I, Tonya”, starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. 


When Olympic skater Tonya Harding becomes embroiled in a scandal, what impact will this have on both her personal and professional life?


Growing up in Portland, Oregon, little Tonya Harding is something of a skating prodigy.  At only four years old, she wins her first competition, somewhat pushed into it by her soulless mother, LaVona (Janney), who keeps her daughter under her thumb her entire life.  As her skating pursuits extend over the years, the teenage Harding (Robbie) grows to be a young woman defiant of her imperious mother.  This defiance culminates when she leaves home to marry the only boyfriend she’s ever had, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a rudderless young man who has few ambitions and arguably less education.

Tonya’s reputation in the skating community only grows when she becomes known as the only American female skater who has successfully accomplished the triple axel feat.  Now considered among the elite, talk begins of Olympic competition in 1992.  While she succeeds in making the team, she fails to bring home the gold medal.  Meanwhile, all of this focus on her skating combined with an ever-expanding ego causes her marriage to suffer.  She and Jeff are physically abusive to each other and eventually, they separate when she finally has had enough.

With her life in tatters, Tonya learns that she may have another opportunity to compete:  instead of waiting four years for the Winter Olympics, the IOC decides the next one will be in 1994.  This provides chance to reconnect with her childhood trainer and prepare for another competition.  But one thing stands in the way:  her main American threat is Nancy Kerrigan, a young woman who is more palatable to the skating community.  Now back with Jeff, they learn of death threats that may be coming from Kerrigan’s camp to play games with Tonya mentally.  When Jeff’s friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) hires a couple of goons to take care of the matter, things soon get out of hand – but will Tonya still be able to participate in the Olympics or will involvement in this stunt ruin her career?


Oy, Tonya!  For those of us that are old enough to remember this too-good-to-be-true story about the soap opera that was Tonya Harding and company, it is something of a guilty pleasure to take a stroll down memory lane with “I, Tonya”.  Prior to 1994, few of us knew that the world of women’s professional skating was a full-contact sport.  Or maybe blood sport would be more accurate.  Such a genteel activity suddenly took on the verisimilitude of professional wrestling.  If this had been written as purely a work of fiction, no one would believe it because it was so utterly ridiculous.

With respect to the performances in this movie, the depth and breadth of Robbie’s acting skills are remarkable (she is also a co-producer of “I, Tonya”).  This often-glamorous actress truly comes across as the trailer trash the film’s subject truly is; while Robbie is a true beauty, the make-up artist successfully manages to transform her to look disturbingly heinous, possibly bordering on monstrous.  As good as Robbie is (and she’s great), Janney is that much better.  It’s foolish to try to predict acting nominations, but it would be a travesty if Janney was completely overlooked.  Yes, she’s just that awesome.

Technically, “I, Tonya” also gets high grades.  The movie is shot documentary-style, with interviews of the people involved many years after the fact (more accurately, interviews with the characters who are portrayed by the film’s actors).  This gives the motion picture something of a “Rashomon Effect” in the sense that each of the characters remembers things through the filter of their own reality.  Additionally, the camera is well-positioned in the skating scenes; rather than shooting it wide, we are actually on the ice with Harding, nearly giving the feeling that we are skating along side her.  One minor criticism is the too-frequent use of popular music from that era; it’s so intrusive (and at times, too on-the-nose) that you notice it and maybe even cringe a little.   

I, Tonya (2017) on IMDb

Friday, November 17, 2017

“Darkest Hour”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City Premiere of the new historical drama, “Darkest Hour” starring Gary Oldman.


When Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister of England, will he order his military to combat Hitler or will he choose to negotiate a peace treaty?


In early May of 1940, Adolph Hitler is encroaching throughout Europe.  It looks like he will take Belgium – and if he does that, is France far behind?  The citizens of England are understandably worried; they are beginning to lose faith in their Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.  Seeing the tide turning against him, Chamberlain steps aside and King George installs Winston Churchill (Oldman) as the nation’s new Prime Minister.  But it is not without some controversy; the King has reservations about Churchill.  Professionally, the man is something of a hawk and personally, he’s known to be a bit of a lush. 

Now in charge, Churchill soon finds he’s inherited no bed of roses.  Visiting France, he’s stunned to learn that they have no plan to confront Hitler’s troops.  Seeing he may have to support France in addition to defending his own country, the nascent Prime Minister is alarmed to find that his nation’s military will be no match against Germany’s and they will be spread particularly thin if they are forced to fight for two countries.  Desperate, he asks United States President Roosevelt for some assistance, but this proves fruitless.  Just weeks into his term, Churchill is hearing rumblings of dissent in his Parliament.

Against his best instincts, Churchill starts listening to some of his advisors who strongly recommend they take up Italy’s Mussolini on his offer to serve as a broker between England and Germany to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler.  As loathe as Churchill may be to this notion, the reality is that if his soldiers try to fight Germany, they will suffer massive casualties and the nation will wind up losing faith in its new leader.  Once word comes that Belgium has fallen, Churchill must make a decision:  either concede or talk the Parliament into putting up a fight against the German forces.  Is this something that Churchill is worth risking at this point in his political career? 


It is rare to have multiple biopics about the same historical figure in one year.  This past Spring, “Churchill” was reviewed; over the summer, “Dunkirk” was released (not directly about The British Bulldog himself, but close enough); now, we have, “Darkest Hour” – which wags will likely refer to as “Darkest Two Hours”.  But make no mistake:  both the Prime Minister and that point in the history of the world are quite rich with material for many motion pictures, books and even television mini-series.  Churchill himself was legendary for many reasons, including being quite a character (for better or worse).   

The problem for some who try dramatic adaptions to their chosen medium  is this:  in real time, the events were thrilling moments but condensing them to movies while keeping the dramatic tension can prove a challenge when the outcome is already known.  This is the main problem with “Darkest Hour” – while there’s a war raging on in Europe, the conflict has to do with the internecine battles within the British Parliament as well as Churchill’s own personal doubts.  Conveying that on-screen is difficult to say the least and the way the story arrives at its resolution is hard to swallow; the final scene where Churchill speaks before Parliament tries to be exhilarating but winds up more underwhelming.    

Regarding the performances, Oldman is being touted as a possible award nominee for his portrayal of Churchill.  Much of the time, however, it appears as though he is letting the extensive make-up do a substantial amount of the work.  His gravelly utterances at various points can be hard to comprehend, especially when he is mumbling – particularly odd since the character was known as a great orator.  Kristin Scott Thomas, on the other hand, goes sorely under-utilized as the Prime Minister’s wife; although she portrays Mrs. Churchill as a doting and dignified supportive influence, her role is distressingly minor.  However, the classic, fragile beauty of this actress never goes unnoticed.       

Darkest Hour (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

“Murder On The Orient Express”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new mystery, “Murder On The Orient Express”, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.


When a passenger is killed during a long train ride, can a legendary detective determine which one of the others committed the crime?


In 1934, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) boards the Orient Express in Istanbul to embark on a vacation – or so he thought.  The train is packed with a motley collection of fellow travelers – all of whom are quite idiosyncratic in their own right.  Along the way through the wintry mountains, the train gets stalled when it is derailed by a substantial snowdrift.  Once the train misses its schedule at the next station, an excavation crew is sent out to locate the train and dig it out so that it can proceed along its route.  Stuck in the snow, some of the passengers get acquainted with each other – in particular, Poirot meets a man named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who turns out to be something of a scoundrel.   

While onboard this luxury transportation, one of the passengers is murdered – and to the surprise of few, it turns out the victim is Ratchett.  At this point, everyone looks to Poirot to find the culprit.  Poirot then begins his investigation in his own inimitable way, looking for clues in places where no one would think to find them.  His powers of deduction cause him to interview each of the passengers, asking some very pointed questions, infuriating and insulting some of them.  Furthermore, Poirot’s observational skills allow him to see things about each passenger which arouses his suspicions.     

With the excavation crew making inroads in their ability to free up the train, the Orient Express will soon be on its way.  Time is of the essence and if the train arrives at its next stop before a malefactor can be uncovered, they will likely get away with the crime.  Poirot is now under pressure to narrow down the suspects.  But who can it be?  Each one of the dozen passengers has shown themselves to be deceptive in their own way and a number of them even seem to have their own motive to want to take out Ratchett.  Can Poirot figure out who done it before it’s too late or will this prove to be the first time the great expert is outsmarted?


It would be understandable to roll your eyes at the thought of yet another remake of this Agatha Christie classic novel.  But the filmmakers do seem to get it right this time around (unless of course you’re faithful to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974, which would be quite understandable as many consider it The Gold Standard).  The entire production design – including and especially the CGI that shows the locomotive wending its way through the snow-capped mountains – is quite something to behold.  But what really pulls the whole thing together is Branagh – both with his directing and his acting.  

The screenplay by Michael Green also deserves some notice as well.  He has allowed Poirot to have humor – including that of the self-deprecating variety which illustrates the detective’s immense ego (not to mention his larger-than-life mustache).  Also, the characters are reasonably well delineated, but not with so much detail that the audience can’t see the forest for the trees; in the two hours of the movie, you get just enough backstory about them that you have a good enough idea who each one is without clogging the forward progression of the main story.

As a director, Branagh finds some interesting shots on the train, shooting a conversation with one passenger through a window that almost acts like a cross between a prism and a fun house mirror.  Seeing him as Poirot march confidently across the snow-covered roof of a train car without concern for his footing is humorous in itself.  But as an actor, it’s the intensity he gives Poirot that truly hits the spot here; we almost see Poirot as vulnerable and fallible as he tries to come to the conclusion of just exactly who did away with Ratchett. 

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

“LBJ”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “LBJ”, starring Woody Harrelson and directed by Rob Reiner. 


When Lyndon Baines Johnson unexpectedly finds himself President Of The United States, can he rise to the occasion and display leadership?


As Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Lyndon Johnson (Harrelson) of Texas wielded great power; he could either make sure things got done or guarantee they would hit a dead-end.  After losing the Democratic nomination for President Of The United States to a young and handsome John Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) in 1960, it was something of a curiosity as to why Johnson would accept Kennedy’s offer to run on the ticket alongside him.  Since Johnson would be Vice President if Kennedy won, his power and influence would surely evaporate and he would lose his Senate seat.  Yet this seemed like an irresistible opportunity.  

Kennedy won the election by the slimmest of margins and predictably, Johnson got marginalized by the new President and his closest advisors – especially, Kennedy’s younger brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who is now also Attorney General of The United States.  Johnson becomes increasingly frustrated by his irrelevance and decides instead to plan for 1968, thinking he would run for President following Kennedy’s second term (assuming, of course, that he would get re-elected).  However, Johnson knew his chances weren’t great because not that many incumbent Vice Presidents ever got elected. 

Fate intervened on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated; Johnson then assumed the position of President, much to the immense consternation of Bobby Kennedy, who of course was also still mourning the loss of his brother.  Instead of proceeding with his own agenda, Johnson decided it would be best to proceed with Kennedy’s policies – the main one being Civil Rights.  The problem, however, would come in the form of resistance from Johnson’s former Senate colleagues – especially the ones from the Southern states.  Would Johnson succumb to their pressure or would he be able to get a Civil Rights Act into law?    


“LBJ” is going to be remembered for one very important reason:  the fact that it is distinctly unmemorable.  For a movie that purports to document a crucial event in American history, it is stunning how lacking it is in substance; you are better off viewing HBO’s “All The Way” starring Bryan Cranston – not only does the HBO flick have a much better script (it was based on a play that also starred Cranston), but Cranston’s portrayal of President Johnson is far superior to that of Harrelson’s.  Cranston made you feel that Lyndon Johnson truly inhabited him whereas Harrelson is relying on a sloppy make-up job and an unconvincing accent (despite the fact that both he and the late president hail from the same state). 

The screenplay is amateurish in both the way it clumsily attempts to convey exposition and also in the confusing manner in which it jumps around chronologically, especially in its early scenes.  Additionally, there seems to be something of an inexplicable attempt to make “LBJ” a hagiography; it tries to portray its subject heroically in large part by making others around him seem much worse – this is especially true when it comes to the way that Bobby Kennedy was played.  Based on the way it comes across in the film, the main reason for the sour relationship between the younger Kennedy and his brother’s Vice President is due to the bad attitude Bobby had towards Johnson. 

Despite being a gifted actor in his own right, Harrelson cannot elevate this script; in fact, as good as he may be, Harrelson may have bit off more than he can chew when picking this role because there was nothing he was going to be able to do to make either himself or the movie look good.  He is unbelievable as Johnson and both this role and this motion picture are beneath him.  Also, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson is totally wasted here; as the president’s wife, her character is ornamental and one-dimensional.  If the character did not appear at all, she would not have been missed.          

LBJ (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Wonder Wheel”– Movie Review


On the Closing Night of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of Woody Allen’s new drama, “Wonder Wheel”, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake. 


When a couple’s world is disrupted by the return of his estranged daughter, can they protect her once they learn her life is in danger? 


As a World War II veteran, Mickey (Timberlake) now finds himself living quite the life.  It’s the 1950’s and he works summers as a lifeguard on the beach of Coney Island while trying to earn his Masters Degree at New York University, aspiring to one day be a great writer.  But on the path to that goal, he takes a few detours – one of which being Ginny (Winslet), an unhappily married woman with whom he’s been having an affair.  While Ginny may be grateful to Humpty (Jim Belushi) for marrying her after her ex-husband left her to take care their son, the ugly truth is, she’s not really in love with him.  Honestly, maybe she never was.

Ginny works as a waitress at a restaurant on the Coney Island boardwalk while Humpty operates the carousel on the same boardwalk.  Together, they make a meager living and struggle to get by from one week to another.  It is no puzzle then that neither one of them are at all pleased when Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives at their front door one fine day.  Carolina is Humpty’s adult daughter from a previous marriage; for quite some time now, they have been estranged because she wound up marrying a gangster against Humpty’s wishes and advice.  The last thing this young woman wanted to do at this point is to ask her father for help, but that’s exactly what made her walk back into his life.

While living as a gangster’s spouse initially seemed exciting, the glamor has since worn off.  When her husband got in trouble with the law, Carolina saved herself from jail by sharing with the FBI much of what she knew.  But that’s only endangered her further because the men from her husband’s gang now want to murder her before she spills yet more beans.  Against Ginny’s wishes, Humpty allows Carolina to hide out with them; Carolina inevitably winds up meeting Mickey and they start dating, although she does not know about Ginny having her own fling with him.  Once Ginny discovers that Carolina and Mickey are dating, she is overwhelmed with jealousy.  It doesn’t take long for the gangsters to locate Carolina – but once Ginny learns that Carolina’s life is in peril, will she try to save her life or will her jealousy get the best of her?   


“Wonder Wheel” is a beautiful movie to look at, but it may be less pleasant to watch.  Yes, on the surface, this may sound contradictory if not confusing, but nonetheless accurate.  While Woody Allen takes a credit as writer and director of this film, make no mistake about it – this largely belongs to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who worked with Allen on his previous motion picture “Café Society” as well as his next one, currently in production and as yet untitled.  In “Wonder Wheel”, Storaro has created a masterpiece that is award-worthy; it is more his picture than Allen’s due to its sheer visual beauty. 

It is painful to admit, but creatively speaking, Woody Allen has been drilling a dry hole anxiously awaiting his next gusher; this has been ongoing for quite some time now.  At this point, he might be better off focusing on being a playwright, especially since much of “Wonder Wheel” feels that it was conceived as such; a great deal of the dramatic action takes place statically, on the set of the couple’s apartment.  Not only that, but Allen’s obsessions with great playwrights like Tennessee Williams (especially “Streetcar Named Desire”) and Eugene O'Neill (most notably, “The Iceman Cometh”) are excruciatingly blatant. 

The above plaudits for Storaro are in no way meant to trivialize the performances.  Winslet is excellent and there is talk that she may receive award nominations for her portrayal of Ginny.  Belushi is also quite good but Timberlake is not believable in this role – perhaps he agreed, based on the stiff manner in which he delivered his lines.  Of special mention, however, is Juno Temple; her performance in “One Percent More Humid” made her someone worth watching and Carolina may prove to be her breakout role.  But the masterful way in which Storaro treats things which we normally take for granted such as light, shadows and rain are truly stunning.

Wonder Wheel (2017) on IMDb

“Ismael’s Ghosts”– Movie Review


On the final weekend of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of the new drama, “Ismael’s Ghosts” directed by Arnaud Desplechin and starring Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg. 


When a filmmaker is visited by the wife he believed dead, how will this impact both his work and his relationship with his girlfriend?


Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is working furiously to complete his screenplay but is dogged by his former father-in-law Henri (László Szabó), who’s still obsessing over his daughter Carlotta.  She was married to Ismael but suddenly disappeared; when they never heard from her and the police failed to recover a body, Ismael and Henri had no choice but to have a court declare her as legally dead after a period of years.  While Ismael has made an attempt to move on with his life with Sylvia (Gainsbourg), his girlfriend of the past couple of years, Henri is having much more difficulty doing so.

While at Ismael’s beach house, Sylvia is enjoying the idyllic serenity while Ismael largely spends his time indoors working.  One day, Sylvia is approached by a woman (Cotillard) who claims to be Carlotta, Ismael’s wife.  Startled, Sylvia seems convinced, so she takes the woman to see Ismael, who is similarly taken aback.  With no place to stay, they invite Carlotta to stay at the house.  Soon, tensions erupt; Ismael is furious at Carlotta both for leaving and returning – she has not only ruined his life once, but twice.  Sylvia is also understandably upset; with Carlotta back in the picture, she fears that the once-missing wife will now try to reclaim what she feels is her rightful place.

Unable to take it any longer, Sylvia leaves, deciding to instead completely throw herself into her work as an astrophysicist in order to forget the terrible experience she was forced to endure.  With Sylvia out of the way, Carlotta seizes this opportunity to get Ismael back.  In his mind, Carlotta is no more; he no longer considers her his wife.  He returns to Paris to work on his film, advising Carlotta to mend fences with Henri.  But with all of this turbulence in his life, Ismael can’t concentrate on his film.  When his producer discovers the problem is that Ismael misses Sylvia, can he somehow find a way to reconcile them so that Ismael can finish the film?      


Some French films are more French than others and “Ismael’s Ghosts” is very French – but it also feels very Hitchcockian as well in some ways.  The mystery behind why Carlotta left and why she returned gets solved assuming you believe her explanations – as an audience, we are forced to take them at face value because there’s no evidence otherwise.  Whether or not you buy into the reasons is almost irrelevant because the story seems more concerned about how well or badly an artist deals with diversions resulting from tumultuous experiences in his life while he tries desperately to focus on creating his work.  

One criticism is that the movie feels as though it derails a bit early in the third act, after Sylvia leaves and Ismael returns to Paris.  Viewing this portion of “Ismael’s Ghosts”, one gets the sense as though both Ismael and the motion picture itself have gone rather insane because both appear scattered all over the place and the film seems to lose its narrative thread.  It takes quite some time before the picture appears to get back on track again.  Thankfully, once the character and the work itself return to its senses, it wraps up with a very endearing and satisfying resolution that ultimately rewards the audience after an unsettling experience. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Desplechin and Mathieu Amalric.  For Desplechin, “Ismael’s Ghosts” is a story about people’s last chances in life.  He further concedes that this is something of a roman à clef  in the sense that a part of him really does want to get out of the filmmaking profession at some point.  Desplechin says he made very deliberate choices in terms of the music used in “Ismael’s Ghosts”; the music changes stylistically depending on whose story is being told at any given moment.  (Particularly amusing was Cotillard’s character dancing to an old Bob Dylan recording)    

Ismael's Ghosts (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Lady Bird”– Movie Review


This past weekend at The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of the new comedy “Lady Bird”, written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan.


Facing high school graduation, can a young woman resolve the conflicts with her mother before going off to college?


In the Spring of 2002, the hideous memories of the events from September 11th of the previous year are still fresh in everyone’s mind – even for those who live 3,000 miles away in Sacramento, California.  That includes Christine (Ronan) and her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts), a working class family who struggle to scrape by month to month; Christine’s father Larry works as a computer programmer and her mother Marion is a nurse. While Larry and Marion focus on paying their family’s bills, Christine – who prefers to be called Lady Bird – is consumed with her future, which she hopes will be as an actress on the Broadway stage in New York City. 

Until that day comes, however, Lady Bird will do what your average high school senior in her situation would do – spend time with her friends, date young men and maybe even appear in a school play or two.  As far as her romantic life is concerned, she is a very sexually inexperienced girl; nothing would please Lady Bird more than to lose her virginity before starting college, but it would have to be with the right person.  Lady Bird believes that she has found just that young man in the form of Danny (Lucas Hedges), a fellow actor in one of her school plays – but after dating for a while, she suddenly learns that Danny is gay, so her hopes are dashed (for now, anyway). 

In the meantime, Lady Bird has her hands full at home.  It seems that she and Marion are always engaged in one long continuous fight.  Is one of them envious of the other or do they feel as though they are in competition with each other?  Both could be true.  Complicating matters is the fact that Lady Bird has made it known that the colleges to which she has applied are all out of town – mostly in the east and especially in New York.  This only serves to further upset Marion, partly because she knows deep down that she would miss her daughter, partly because she fears for her safety in New York and partly because of the expense – which becomes of particular concern when Larry loses his job.  As the two battle up to the bitter end, will Lady Bird be able to patch up things with her mother before leaving for college?


With “Lady Bird”, Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut – and she’s off to a fine start.  This is a good first step for a woman who is clearly (and unsurprisingly) multi-talented.  “Lady Bird” is a safe choice for a rookie director in that it is short, comedic and semi-autobiographical; Gerwig was smart to not try to be overly ambitious her first time out.  Perhaps later in her development as a director, she will attempt something a bit more challenging.  But for now, she has made some good shot choices and served both her cast and script well.  Whatever she does next should be a real doozy.   

Saoirse Ronan is playing a vastly different character than she did in “Brooklyn”, which appeared at this festival two years ago – but a character that is nonetheless just as charming and adorable.  The difference here is that her Christine is also bratty and self-centered.  At 23, Ronan’s youthful looks allow her the opportunity to  get away with playing a 17 year old girl, but she makes it believable. Ronan and Gerwig are both making the most of their opportunities and their talent, so it is especially exciting to see these two women team up on a movie.      

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Gerwig and some of the cast.  Originally, Gerwig wrote this screenplay back in 2013; the first draft wound up something like 300 pages in length.  When Gerwig picked it up again, she was able to substantially pare it down.  The original title was “Mothers & Daughters”, which makes sense, since Gerwig characterizes this as a mother-daughter love story.  As a director, Gerwig says that she tries to keep a “magic bubble” around the actors, allowing them to be independent without a feeling that they constantly have to check-in with the director regarding their acting choices.    

Lady Bird (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

“Let the Sunshine In”– Movie Review


This past weekend, I attended a screening at The 55th New York Film Festival for the North American Premiere of the new comedy, “Let The Sunshine In” (AKA, “Bright Sunshine In” or its original French title, “Un beau soleil intérieur”), directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche.  


Can a middle-aged divorced mother find true love despite all of the unworthy men she encounters?


Following her divorce, Isabelle (Binoche) finds that without being in a romantic entanglement with a man is an empty existence indeed.  In order to fix this, she starts sleeping with a number of men in the hope that one of them frogs will emerge as her prince if she kisses them enough.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, each one of these men are profoundly imperfect.  Some are married, some are emotionally distant and others are far too involved in their career to be capable of giving love to another person.  None of this prevents Isabelle from repeatedly bedding them, however.   

This does not get in the way of Isabelle either caring for her daughter or negatively impacting her work as an artist; she shares custody of her daughter with her ex-husband (with whom she occasionally has a bit of a fling) and her internal conflict seems to prove an inspiration for her work.  Nevertheless, she still sees a man who steadfastly refuses to leave his wife (Xavier Beauvois) and a self-absorbed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who is also cheating on his spouse among sundry others who give the impression that they are equally unworthy of this woman’s charms. 

Finally, and in an act of total desperation, Isabelle decides to start seeing a fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu).  Unknown to Isabelle, this man has recently ended a relationship of his own and suddenly finds himself single, but now with a most attractive woman as a client.  When Isabelle informs him of her predicament, he may be seeing it as an opportunity for himself.  Revealing the potential future she may have with various men, he describes them in most unflattering ways.  Is he trying to seduce Isabelle or is she trying to seduce him?


In 1818, poet John Keats wrote “Endymion”, which begins with the line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever".  Keats could have been talking about either Claire Denis’ “Let The Sunshine In” or its star, Juliette Binoche.  Both are things of beauty and a joy forever – although, perhaps for different reasons.  Binoche has never been sexier or funnier than she is as Isabelle and Denis’ light touch makes you feel as though you’re savoring the most exquisite soufflé that’s ever crossed your palate. The director’s passion for this work is only exceeded by Isabelle’s passion for life’s sensual delights.    

Both the movie and Binoche’s portrayal of Isabelle are deliciously sexy and naughty.  “Let The Sunshine In” and Binoche’s performance will leave you almost feeling deliriously intoxicated.  Binoche’s character is sexually ferocious without crossing the line into nymphomania.  While funny, there’s also a touch of sadness to it because ultimately, this woman is unhappy as she is unable to feel and reciprocate true love.  It’s less about sex than a deeper connection; this is an insanely beautiful woman, so she obviously has no problem getting sex whenever she wants  You root for her but you see her as deeply flawed in certain ways, which may have much to do with her inability to find love. 

To say that “Let The Sunshine In” is a romantic comedy would trivialize it a bit; it’s more accurate to characterize it as an updated Fench bedroom farce, but what makes it all the more refreshing is that it is from a strictly distaff perspective (not only is there a female star, but it also was directed by a woman, who collaborated on the screenplay with yet another woman).  This likely also keeps the movie from being tawdry but gritty enough to keep it from being twee.

“Let The Sunshine In” seems to be saying that we are never truly satisfied in our romantic relationships because no one can ever live up to our unrealistically high expectations of them.   Isabelle appears to be a manipulator just as much as she is manipulated herself by the men with whom she associates.  She is in love with the concept of love but not necessarily so fond of long-term commitment.  Perhaps she is the victim of her own artistic quirks. 

This movie is truly a gem and a must-see.  An extremely minor criticism is that its end titles are a bit distracting because they start rolling before the film is over – as a result, if you’re watching a subtitled version (as was this screening), it’s hard to keep up with the dialog while reading the credits.   

Let the Sun Shine In (2017) on IMDb

Monday, October 09, 2017

“Wonderstruck”– Movie Review


At the midpoint of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended The Centerpiece Screening of the new drama by Todd Haynes, “Wonderstruck”, starring Julianne Moore. 


When a Midwestern boy journeys to New York City to find his father, how will a similar quest by a little girl a half-century earlier wind up helping him?


In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) turned 12 years old; he resents his mother (Michelle Williams) because she’s very tight-lipped about his background – he’s never met his father and she won’t tell Ben the man’s name, where he lives or why he’s not around.  Shortly thereafter, Ben finds himself all alone in the world when his mother perishes from a car accident.  Snooping around his late mother’s bedroom, he finds something in her dresser drawer:  an old book that bears the title “Wonderstruck”.  Flipping the pages, he discovers a bookmark that appears to have the name of the bookstore where it may have been purchased, along with its Manhattan address and telephone number.   

Excited by this revelation, Ben decides to call the number on the bookmark – as it turns out, a fateful choice.  Just as Ben goes on the phone, a violent storm is erupts; a bolt of lightning strikes a telephone pole and the electrical charge travels down the wire and into the phone, hitting Ben and rendering him unconscious.  Later, he awakens in the hospital to learn that he is now deaf.  Undaunted by this setback, Ben flees the hospital and takes both the book and bookmark onto a bus from his home in Gunflint, Minnesota to New York City where he proceeds to try to find the bookstore. 

Fifty years prior, a little girl the same age as Ben had a similar experience.  Growing up  in Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is facing many hardships, not the least of which being that she is deaf like Ben – but unlike him, she was born that way.  Feeling lonely without her parents around, Rose runs off by herself to New York City to see if she can find her mother Lillian (Moore), a famous actress now starring in a play on Broadway.  But destiny takes over and Ben soon learns that Rose’s search magically converges with his own, although separated by decades.  Will Ben be able to unlock the mystery behind this girl and finally find his father?     


Whether or not you will in fact find yourself wonderstruck by “Wonderstruck” may largely depend on some factors, such as to what degree you may be able to suspend your disbelief and also to what extent you are able to follow the story.  For many years now, Todd Haynes has reminded us what an incredibly gifted filmmaker he is (at this festival two years ago, his “Carol” was shown).  “Wonderstruck” has a somewhat complicated narrative, in some ways better suited to the popular novel on which it was based (author Brian Selznick also wrote the adaptation for the screen); making it into a film is an ambitious undertaking. 

With respect to the suspension of disbelief, there is a strong argument to be made that “Wonderstruck” is something of a fable; perhaps it’s better to regard it as being closer to a fairy tale than a serious drama based in some semblance of reality.  Looking at it in this fashion, one may be more forgiving when it comes to certain contrivances in the story.  As far as following the story is concerned, that may be another matter altogether.  Interestingly, the problem does not come so much with the intercutting between 1927 and 1977 scenes as it does with the clarity within each story’s individual narrative.  Curiously, Haynes shot the 1927 scenes in black and white and without sound, as if it was a silent film of that era.  

Is “Wonderstruck” for adults or children or both?  Some of the above observations may be considered caviling because this is not a bad film; it’s generally quite good, but not without some obvious flaws.  The argument in favor of seeing this movie would be that it is a good conversation starter; exactly what that conversation would be might depend on the the other party.  If you have a friend or family member (either child or adult) who is hearing impaired, “Wonderstruck” takes you into their world and it might be of use to get their reaction (the screening on this evening was open caption, so no special devices were needed to read the on-screen subtitles).  On the other hand, this might be a good motion picture for a child to see; its underlying message is about the value of family and how we better understand ourselves when we understand our parents.        

Wonderstruck (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, October 07, 2017

“Spielberg”– Movie Review


This week at The 55th New York Film Festival, I caught the World Premiere of the new documentary, “Spielberg”.


A documentary that analyzes how the legendary director’s personal life influenced his professional work. 


As a child, Steven Spielberg was something of a loner.  Growing up in Arizona, he didn’t have many friends.  He did, however, have an astounding ability to internalize exactly what made a good movie from the standpoint of visual storytelling as well as the ability to execute that that in the films he would make in his youth.  Exactly how he figured out how to do this isn’t clear – it can only be explained that it is simply a part of what makes the man a genius filmmaker.  While these movies might look primitive on the surface, considering that a boy who was yet to take his first filmmaking class figured out how to simulate special effects is something of a marvel. 

Spielberg grew up with two sisters, who wound up appearing in some of his childhood films, albeit not always voluntarily.  What he tried to do in his movies then was not only to scare his sisters but also scare himself as well; he grew up feeling always afraid as a kid as he was extensively bullied in school.  Even the filmmaker admits that he never went into therapy precisely because filmmaking was his therapy – he worked out all of his personal demons by making a movie about them.  This explains why he would multitask, editing one film while reading a script for his next. 

In the end, Spielberg remains completely unapologetic about the brazen sentimentality in his films.  If the critics say his movies lack certain artistic qualities and that his work is not intellectual enough, let them.  All he cares about is telling a great story in a compelling fashion.  As a teenager, Spielberg saw “Lawrence Of Arabia” in a theater where it was shown in 70mm; he felt that the film was so majestic, he should abandon his dream of becoming a filmmaker because he would never be able to do anything as good as – much less better than – that movie.  But subsequent viewings of the film turned him around – the motion picture became his greatest inspiration.   


At two and a half hours in length, “Spielberg” is nearly twice as long as most documentaries.  This might be explained by the fact that its subject has a rather long career with an extensive body of work and that he has also had a significant impact on our popular culture internationally, but especially in America.  That might explain it, but it’s no justification.  In terms of informational nutrition, this documentary is filled with nothing but empty calories because there’s not much new or revelatory information in its content; while the director himself is worthy of a documentary, the documentary is not worthy of its length.   

It is your typical documentary, filled with talking heads (including Spielberg himself as well as the cast and crew who’ve worked with him over the years), padded with clips from his films and occasional excerpts from home movies.  If you are a casual movie fan or a casual fan of Spielberg, you might find some of the information interesting but if you have read or seen interviews of him over the years, there’s nothing new here.  On the other hand, only a hardcore Spielberg aficionado or movie buff, then you might find the length less objectionable because it apparently is attempting a deep dive. 

One thing that’s somewhat puzzling about this documentary is the omission of the fact that Spielberg had Jerry Lewis as a filmmaking teacher at The University of Southern California.  Why was Jerry Lewis not interviewed for this film?  Was he asked and he declined?  If so, that would have been interesting to include in the story.  Was he never asked in the first place?  Why was Spielberg not asked about Jerry Lewis in the final form of this documentary?  This was a reasonably well-known fact (among some of the others in the motion picture) and sadly, its absence is the only thing remarkable about this documentary. 

Spielberg (2017) on IMDb

Monday, October 02, 2017

“The Meyerowitz Stories” – Movie Review


On the first weekend of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the North American Premiere of the new Noah Baumbach comedy-drama, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman.


As an elderly father nears his final days, will he be able to resolve issues with his adult children – and can they resolve the issues they have with each other? 


In his prime, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) was once considered an influential sculptor by critics, colleagues and his students alike.  He does not share their opinion of him; focusing on his career, he was not very successful in his personal life.  Harold has married several times with adult offspring from different wives – Danny (Sandler), Matt (Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).  His current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), is a bit eccentric, to put it mildly; although she provides Harold with companionship, she’s struggling to stay sober as she feels like something of an outsider in this family. 

Making Harold feeling even more distraught is the fact that one of his contemporaries, L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), has his own career resurrected when he’s suddenly finding great fame late in life.  Harold attends a showing of Shapiro’s work at a gallery and becomes so resentful, he abruptly leaves, envious and embarrassed.  Meanwhile, he is forced to deal with Danny’s issues; separated from his wife, Danny’s seeing his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college.  A failed musician, Danny is struggling to get by financially and Eliza’s college is yet another burden.

Visiting from California, Matt, a financial advisor, tries to convince Harold to sell his home and move into a less expensive place.  Matt’s half-brother Danny objects because he wants his father to spend his remaining time in a familiar space.  This causes the resentment the half-brothers harbored for decades to come to the forefront.  Sharing a father but coming from different mothers, they felt that they had to compete for Harold’s love and attention.  While the debate over selling the house rages on, Harold is hospitalized due to a brain injury he incurred after a fall.  Not knowing whether or not Harold will pull through, will his three children be able to resolve their outstanding issues with their father?  For that matter, can they put their own differences aside as well?


Baumbach’s latest explores a considerable amount of familiar territory; this is probably good news for his fans and perhaps something of a disappointment for those who are less enthusiastic when it comes to this filmmaker’s body of work.  Not that revisiting themes we’re accustomed to seeing from a director is necessarily a bad thing – as long as it’s done well, at at any rate.  Familial conflict has typically been Baumbach’s métier, so he cannot be blamed for returning to the well, especially if that’s what drives him creatively.  For those familiar with his earlier work, “The Meyerowitz Stories” almost could be considered a sequel to “The Squid And The Whale”.  However, despite the series of interesting tales, its ending is something of a letdown. 

Where “The Meyerowitz Stories” diverges from “The Squid And The Whale” is with its underlying theme on the nature of success.  Success, the movie seems to say, is both personal and subjective; what determines defining something as a success will vary individually, depending on context – it’s all relative.  Harold, despite how others view him, feels he has been unsuccessful.  Danny never followed through on his musical studies, so he believes himself to be a failure.  Matt didn’t pursue a career in the arts, so regardless of his income, thinks he is not a success in his father’s eyes.     

What makes “The Meyerowitz Stories” worth seeing is its stellar cast; this is truly a remarkable ensemble performance all around – and yes, that even includes Adam Sandler.  But while the story centers on the sibling rivalry between Sandler’s character and Stiller’s, the performance worth viewing is that of Dustin Hoffman; his nuanced portrayal as the father shows he’s still got plenty in the tank.  He plays an artist who never really understood how aloof he was with his wives or children and lacks the introspection to acknowledge his behavior.

Following the screening was a question and answer session with the cast, writer/director and composer Randy Newman, who wrote the soundtrack.  Perhaps the most incisive and salient observations about “The Meyerowitz Stories” were made by Hoffman himself, who noted that while the film is heavily stylized, it is so subtle that it can be easy to miss.  He found the pacing of the movie noteworthy given the fact that it clocks in at under two hours although the script was 170 pages.  Another good comment he made was about Newman’s soundtrack; the music is that of Newman solo on the piano, giving a sad and lonely sound appropriate to the characters in the movie.  

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, September 30, 2017

“Mrs. Hyde”– Movie Review


This week at The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the North American Premiere of the comedy-drama, “Mrs. Hyde”, starring Isabelle Huppert. 


When a high school science teacher suffers an accident which gives her unusual powers, will she be able to control her newfound abilities or will they control her?


Marie Géquil (Huppert) is hated by her students and her colleagues do not seem to hold her in very high esteem either.  As a science teacher at a suburban technical high school, her class treats her with derision.  It seems this woman is far too timid to be taken seriously.  But while teaching is her career, science is her passion; as such, she maintains her own lab on school grounds where she can perform her own experiments in order to better teach her class.  One day in her laboratory, an accident happens where she is apparently electrocuted during a storm.   This permanently transforms her life.

Although neither her husband nor her co-workers notice any change initially, Mrs. Géquil certainly does – and adapting to it is far from easy for her.  As it turns out, she has been imbued with some kind of power – an electrical power, to be precise – which is difficult for her to control, even after she becomes aware that it is now in her possession.  But there is yet another transformation that takes place in Mrs. Géquil and that has to do with her personality.  It seems that she has become more confident, less fearful of her students – and that leads to classes where these young men and women are increasingly engaged and as a result are learning more. 

Mrs. Géquil begins mentoring one of her students – Mallik, a handicapped teenager who just wants to fit in with the other kids, but because of his disability, they are not quite so accepting of him.  Géquil recognizes Mallik is both willing and able to learn, so she conducts extracurricular sessions with him in order to assist the young man with his studies.  But just as Mallik starts to excel in his education, so does  Mrs. Géquil change in her behavior; overnight, her electrical powers transform her into a murderer and when she tries to make Mallik one of her victims, will she succeed or can the police stop her before Mallik loses his life?           


When a director has to explain his movie to a group of people who have just screened it, that does not speak well of the work.  Nevertheless, that is precisely what happened after the showing of “Mrs. Hyde” – but more on that later.   This is something of an oddball film in the sense that it is neither entirely a comedy nor something that fits easily into a horror/science fiction genre.  Also, it is clearly not a strict adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novel, “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” – although that is admittedly what inspired this version of the story. 

In this updated distaff reboot, Mrs. Géquil (Jekyll) is a science teacher in the modern day, who instructs a class of woebegone students who may have some degree of potential.  Here, however, we have more sympathy with her than terror, despite her hideous deeds.  It is obvious that she is not in complete control, despite the actions of the character.  Much like Linda Blair’s portrayal in “The Exorcist”, you root for the defeat of the demon which possesses her rather than rooting against the character herself; that being the case, however, the deaths that occur seem more incidental than intentional. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with director/writer Serge Bozon and star Isabelle Huppert, as mentioned above.  Since Bozon ate up much of the time clarifying his story for the audience, Huppert, unfortunately, did not get much of an opportunity to answer questions.  She did, however, share that this role was a great challenge for her because it was difficult for her to memorize her lines; since her character is a science teacher and she has precious little knowledge of the subject, much of the technical language was hard to internalize. 

Madame Hyde (2017) on IMDb


Friday, September 29, 2017

“Last Flag Flying”– Movie Review


On the opening night of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of director Richard Linklater’s new comedy-drama, “Last Flag Flying”, starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. 


When a trio of Vietnam War veterans reunite to help bury one of their sons, will they be able to resolve a dark secret from their shared past?


In 2003, America finds itself in the incipient days of The Iraq War.  It is at this point that Doc (Carell), decides to look up Sal (Cranston), an old buddy of his from decades ago – Doc and Sal both served together in the military during The Vietnam War.  Doc convinces Sal to leave the bar he now owns so they can meet up with the final member of their troika, Mueller (Fishburne), who used to lead them in their long-gone days of raising hell.  Sal is chagrined to learn that the wild man he once knew Mueller to be is now a minister well regarded by his congregation.  

Over a meal at Mueller’s house, Doc reveals the reason for this sudden reunion:  his son, a Marine, just died while serving in Iraq.  As a recent widower, finds he cannot bury his son by himself, so he calls upon the two friends from his youth to provide him with the emotional support he so desperately needs.  While Sal is willing to help, Mueller is extremely reluctant.  Finally, at his wife’s urging, Mueller agrees to join them.  Although Doc’s son will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with other military heroes, they must first venture to The Dover Air Force Base to receive the body. 

While there, the trio learn the real way in which Doc’s son perished.  Upon hearing this, Doc now feels he should not be interred at Arlington; instead, he wants to take his boy back to his home in New Hampshire and have him laid to rest there.  With this, the men travel with the body via train to Doc’s home.  Along the way, they find compelled to revisit a period from their time in the military which they’d prefer to forget because it resulted in the death of one of their military brothers.  Decades later, can this triumvirate find a way to right an old wrong so they can bury Doc’s son with a clear conscience?   


It is likely that most professional film critics will fall all over themselves gushing over “Last Flag Flying” in their review.  There are many reasons for this:  for one thing, they see this as a serious contender for awards and they don’t want to miss the boat calling this one.  For another thing, it is an anti-war movie, so they will feel obligated to throw their support behind it for fear of not appearing politically correct.  Also, there is the matter of the names associated here:  director Linklater (whose “Boyhood” from a few years ago earned many nominations) and the stars – Carell, Cranston and Fishburne – who are among the finest in this country. 

Keeping all of that in mind, perhaps it is now time to tell The Emperor he’s not wearing any clothes.  “Last Flag Flying” is based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.  The big screen adaptation is rather lacking in dramatic impact, although reading its original narrative version may have resulted in a more emotional effect.  This is one of those buddy road movies where the buddies don’t always like each other, which is what generates some of the comic moments; it has been unfairly but inevitably compared to the old Jack Nicholson film, “The Last Detail”.  While “The Last Detail” is really something of a coming of age story, “Last Flag Flying” is more of a coming to terms story.     

As far as the performances are concerned, Carell and Fisburne are superb in their understated portrayals whereas Cranston, for all of his talent, really just appears to be chewing the scenery much of the time.  This acting choice was probably based on two factors:  first, his manic character is a stark contrast against the other two, which makes him stand out all the more.  Also, Sal is supposed to have a metal plate in his head, as the result of a war injury; taking this into consideration, it probably seemed acceptable to play the character as broadly as possible.   

Last Flag Flying (2017) on IMDb